Valentina Matviyenko: Meet Russia's Thatcher, the chemist who could end up in the Kremlim

Russia's next presidential election is not until 2012, but speculation is already rife about whether Dmitry Medvedev will try for a second term or whether his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, will want to reclaim his old job. The one thing almost everyone can agree on is that they will not stand against each other. But there might just be a third way, and that third way could give Russia its very own Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel.

Even to mention the possibility risks crushing Valentina Matviyenko's prospects well before nominations open. But if anyone can do it, the 61-year-old Governor of St Petersburg may be the one. In the past seven years, during which she has been essentially the city's chief executive, the city has changed conspicuously for the better.

Vast investment by the central government improved the city's dilapidated fabric in time for the 300th anniversary in 2003. But the bigger changes have happened since, with huge new housing and commercial building projects and, most conspicuously, a transformation of the public mood. For the first time in my more than 30 years of visiting, people on the streets of St Petersburg seem confident and content with themselves.

At a weekend question and answer session the governor seemed more confident, less Soviet in style and generally more modern than she appeared in a similar setting five years ago: a new hairdo, new weight loss, new spontaneity, and above all a new commanding air. Significant, too, may be the way her whole career – from local Communist Youth leader to member of Mikhail Gorbachev's first delegates' conference, to diplomat, to deputy minister, to elected governor of the city that styles itself Russia's second capital – is a near-ideal reflection of her country's experience. And the third striking aspect is how closely Ms Matviyenko's profile – as an outsider (born and brought up in Ukraine), a natural scientist (a chemist), and a phenomenal power of recall – resembles that of Europe's other two ground-breaking female leaders, Thatcher and Merkel.

Russia has never been keen on female politicians; even in Soviet days, when women drove tractors and the Communist Party boasted about equal rights, their presence in the leading institutions was more token than substantial. Ms Matviyenko acknowledges the problem, cheerfully relating how her opponents festooned the city's streets with banners proclaiming "Being governor is no job for a woman" before she was convincingly elected. But, she says, she opposes Scandinavian-style quotas and says women will have to learn to be more competitive.

Her detailed answers started with her support – or not – for the tower that the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, wants to build in her city. On balance, she seemed to support it, in the face of fierce ecological objections, but not in a dogmatic way that would prevent compromise with protest groups concerned about damage to St Petersburg's skyline.

She spoke at some length about demography – the city's birthrate has risen rapidly in the past two years after falling every year since 1990 – and families are moving to the city from many other parts of Russia, including Moscow, for the culture and quality of life. Tourism to St Petersburg has more than doubled to 5 million visitors a year – since she took over.

She also seemed to be one of very few Russian politicians to be actively tackling corruption. All council meetings are now shown live on the internet as are auctions for building land. The price of land, she gleefully recounted rose more than tenfold when auctions started to be held in public, showing just how much the public purse had lost to corrupt middlemen. There is a hotline for citizens to complain anonymously about bribe-takers and advertisements which make clear that bribe-givers, as well as bribe-takers, are breaking the law.

Aside from the administrative competence the Governor oozes when she speaks, and her boundless enthusiasm for her adopted city, Ms Matviyenko has something else going for her. She was spotted and promoted by none other than the former President and current PM, Vladimir Putin. It was he who gave her the big break: the transfer to St Petersburg. So if he is in two minds about returning to the Kremlin himself and hesitant to back Medvedev for a second term, Ms Matviyenko's might be the new face of Russia.

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